For ten seasons Stephen Colbert satirized Bill O’Reilly. Ten years. What, on paper, should have been a two year gimmick at most at some point morphed into an engaging, absurd thoughtful political comedy which turned Colbert into a household name. The Colbert Report became second only to The Daily Show — its true comic forebearer — in terms of subversively promoting individual political thought while simultaneously torching the political landscape. Colbert was incredibly likeable and funny, two qualities integral to hosting any television program; so when it was announced, rather surprisingly, that Colbert would succeed TV legend David Letterman at CBS’ The Late Show, the news wasn’t “What?” or “I don’t know about this” and more with “Okay, sure” and “I can see that.”
Last Night’s The Late Show with Stephen Colbert premiered with an opening of Colbert singing the national anthem from cutscenes across the country — an endearing, very human and very Colbert way of beginning his proceedings (if nothing else, The Colbert Report did a masterful job of connecting with its audience) before launching into a quasi-monologue/introduction. House band Jon Batiste and Stay Human will prove to be a solid pairing for a Colbert late night program — his optimistic energy evident from his “hype man” status across the stage before Colbert’s walk-out — and Colbert’s clearly displayed a smattering of nerves as he delivered his lines.
But that’s okay. No one hits it right on the first night. Conan’s first night was a mess. Seth Meyers’ was as well. Jimmy Fallon premiered his show by awkwardly goofing around in front of a television with a grim Robert DeNiro. I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t think Colbert will settle into this new role fantastically, though he may take a few months to find his audience: older audiences may struggle to grip Colbert’s innate and beautiful sense of absurdity (an opening bit last night focused on a goat skull bearing a cursed amulet and morphed into a live ad for Sabra Roasted Red Pepper Hummus), while the cynical audiences of The Colbert Report may be disillusioned by the formerly snarky Colbert’s clear mission to connect with audiences on a positive, human level. George Clooney delivered as the first guest of Colbert’s Late Night while, perhaps to shed any trace of Colbert’s liberal-partisan connotation from Comedy Central, the host played nice with political candidate Jeb Bush.
A joyful rendition of Sly & the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” closed the program with Jon Batiste leading Buddy Guy, Ben Folds, Mavis Staples, Brittany Howard, Mavis Staples and Colbert himself, a gleeful close to a shaggy but cheery opening episode. In his premiere, Colbert went big, shed all “character” and delivered his own personality in spades — and that’s going to make him a lot of new TV friends really quickly.